Finally, I’ve found a truly positive use for the “PSOne Classics” archives on the PlayStation Network. Though the library remains nearly devoid of RPGs, particularly compared to the Japanese archive, there was one release this year for a game that I simply never got around to playing a decade ago: Wild Arms 2.
I cannot begin to describe to you what a strange and wonderful experience it was playing the sequel to one of my favorite PlayStation RPGs. Were this site not RPGFan, but instead “Patrick’s emporium of opinions based entirely on his own unique circumstances in life,” the score would be much higher, and I’d be happy to only give the game praise and no critique. But back in the world of reality, I’m here to give a score, and a critique, as objectively as possible. So let’s get right down to it.
Everyone loves a good steampunk, sci-fi Western setting, right? It worked for Trigun, and it certainly worked for the first Wild Arms. In Wild Arms 2, which takes place in the world of Filgaia just as the first Wild Arms game did, you begin the game by playing as each of the three primary characters in a solo mission before their fates intertwine. This, too, is copied from the first game and I had no problems with that.
Ashley Winchester is the game’s blue-haired protagonist (to quote Strong Bad, “you gotta have blue hair!”). Ashley wields a rifle with a bayonet and he beats the pants off of many “silent protagonists” of 32-bit RPGs by being a forward-thinking and optimistic kind of guy. He’s got a girlfriend back home named Marina, though of course he’s not quick to admit there is a romantic interest there. Ashley’s “dark side” is exposed early on in the game, however, as we discover that there is a demon possessing him, or is somehow a part of him. This, of course, is used to further the plot, particularly in the last portion of the game.
Brad Evans, once known as a “hero” during the Slayheim Liberation movement, is now branded a criminal by the authorities. In his opening chapter, he is running from the law. His “Arm” is a giant rocket cannon on his arm: Mega Man style, of course. Each of the game’s playable characters has their own secrets, but Brad’s are the hardest to reveal and the slowest to come forth.
And then there’s Lilka, the crest sorceress. She is the younger sister of a magician with some renown, the “Eleniak Witch Girl” as the rest of the world calls her. However, it seems Lilka’s sister has disappeared from the scene, so Lilka goes on an adventure of her own to become a great sorceress. She eventually runs into Ashley, and the two of them are hired by a nobleman named Irving Valeria to join an elite group of borderless do-gooders called “ARMS.” They break into a prison to free Brad, and around the same time, a terrorist organization called “Odessa” springs up and announces that it will kill the leaders of the world’s three nations, and any citizens trying to protect those leaders, in an attempt to unite the world against the encroaching threat of “monsters” springing up in the wilderness.
The three original members of ARMS eventually grow to five (six if you include a secret character), and they tackle an adventure which spans the entire world, and in some cases, dimensions. The additional playable characters include: Tim, a young boy who is called “The Pillar” by the people of his home village and who is able to summon Guardian Spirits; Kanon, a woman who chose to remove some parts of her original body in favor of having bionic augments to make her a stronger woman; and the secret character, Marivel, who seems to have an omniscient perspective on the events that unfold.
I really enjoyed the conceptual parts of this game’s plot. Both the good guys and the bad guys see the issue of “borders” as a problem, as they lead to mutual mistrust. How they take on this problem seems very different, but in the end, the good guys (ARMS) win over the hearts of the nations’ leaders only because a foe exists for them to defeat. Why this is becomes clearer throughout the game, and the big reveal at the end, while not entirely surprising, is quite powerful. The game also focuses on the meaning and nature of “Arms,” or weaponry. There is even a nuclear weapon (in the form of a dragon) that threatens the peace of the world at one point. Good times.
The final concept they tend to focus on is that of “sacrifice” of an individual for the greater good. Not that this concept hasn’t been taken on in thousands of other stories, but the Wild Arms 2 spin is a peculiarly modern one, one which Final Fantasy X would also use. That is, the one person who sacrifices their own life to save others may well be sacrificing in vain. Is there a better solution? And if so, let’s find it!
The Good Stuff
The entire Wild Arms series prides itself on puzzle-solving as a part of dungeon exploration. Wild Arms 2 made pretty big improvements on the first game, even though it used the same overhead camera, thus limiting the types of puzzles available. Throughout the course of the game, each playable character acquires a total of three tools that can alter certain parts of the environment in very specific ways. There are plenty of switches and gadgets that only respond to certain types of feedback, and it takes the right character with the right tool to set it off. Beyond that, many puzzles have some sort of time limit on them, and that’s where running comes in. By running, I do mean eight-directional dashing. It’s the exact same mechanic as in the first Wild Arms, and I love the way it controls. You come out of a dash with a slight slow-down, and you can, in that bit of time, hold a new directional arrow and then hold down the dash button to dash in a new direction. It’s great!
Combat is straightforward turn-based battles, with renewable, reset “Force Points” as your special attack (MP) gauge. At the start of each battle, the amount of Force Points you have is equal to your character’s level. Max Force Points during battle is 100. All skills are character-specific. Some consume FP (they cost 25, 50, 75, and 100 respectively, and are learned at crucial plot points throughout the game); other skills do not consume FP but require a certain balance of FP to use. FP is gained by dealing damage with regular attacks, or by taking damage from the enemy. Evading an enemy’s attack also nets you FP.
Character growth comes in a few forms. Everyone levels via gaining experience. With each level up, an additional point is given that can be spent at a “personal skills shop.” Everyone has access to the same “skills,” which are essentially passive traits. Some skills cost 1 point to increase in level (particularly, all of the individual status effect resistance traits). Others cost as much as 4 points per level-up, incluing physical attack or physical defense boosts. Considering the average player will finish the game with their characters between levels 40 and 50, it’s important to assign points to the most helpful stats for that character.
Ashley and Brad can increase the strength, accuracy, and number of bullets for each of their ARMS attacks by spending money at an ARMS shop. Each enhancement, along with costing money, increases the overall “level” of that ARMS skill. Once that level reaches 10, it is at max upgrade, and you can no longer improve the weapon. Thus, it’s up to the individual user to decide which is most important: raw power, accuracy, or number of uses before it needs to be refilled back at a town. Lilka, as a Crest Sorceress, can learn magic by assigning crests on a 16-square grid (again, just like the first Wild Arms).
Battles generally go rather quickly, and you know in short order whether you’re winning. With the exception of boss battles, most enemies go down in one or two hits. And, in boss battles, you can go down in one or two hits if you’re not careful. There’s no room for error in the game’s battles; though, if you die, you can consume a “Gimel coin” (rare items that one finds occasionally) to continue from the beginning of that battle instead of returning to a save point. And if your party is in bad shape, but you have more than three members in your total party, you can do on-the-fly switching of characters between turns. Allowing character (and equipment) swapping between turns at no penalty to the player is a huge advantage, one that many other RPGs of its era had not yet adopted.
Though the gameplay and controls are strong, they would not carry the game well on their own. There are a few other positive points about this game that must be brought up. Chief among them is the music, composed by Michiko Naruke. The full soundtrack to this game has nearly 100 original compositions. When the soundtrack for this game was released, unfortunately, they tried to cram 75 tracks onto one disc. As such, most songs were cut short, and it was hard to enjoy them. In the context of the game, all of that changes. The music is brilliant and vibrant, even during the dark and tense musical themes.
The music is at its best during the anime FMV cut scenes, of which there are six. It’s worth noting that these anime FMVs are beautiful and really enhance the gamer’s mental picture of what’s going on. And that’s really important, for reasons we’re going to get to right… now!
This game has some ugly graphics. I would say that it hasn’t aged well, but that really misses the point. This game originally reached the United States in the year 2000: the same year we got Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy IX, and other “end-of-life” PlayStation One games. Even games like SaGa Frontier 2, which lacked technical graphical prowess, used lovely watercolor backgrounds to set the tone, and that worked just fine. Wild Arms 2 looks awful compared to all of those games. In fact, looking back on my younger self, I suspect the graphics are what kept me from ever playing Wild Arms 2. And yes, I do acknowledge the irony of this statement, given that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the first Wild Arms, which looks even worse… particularly in battle.
I mentioned the great anime cut scenes, which is the only place where the graphics shine. The music is great here, as well, but SCEA was still part of that xenophobic state where they believed gamers would be opposed to hearing Japanese vocal tracks. As such, they pulled the game’s five vocal tracks (disc one opening, disc two opening, “quit game” scenes for both discs, and ending vocal) and replaced the vocal track with instrumental performances. The instrumental tracks aren’t bad, but the vocal tracks are simply amazing. In particular, the disc two opening, “Resistance Line,” remains one of my all-time favorite vocal tracks in a game. How I wish that they would have re-inserted these tracks for the PlayStation Network release. No such luck. Fortunately, they did keep the non-lyrical male vocal track for the disc one ending, “Atomic Arms.”
Now, let us speak at length regarding the biggest offense of all. The plot to Wild Arms 2 is decent. It’s not groundbreaking, but it is by no means bad. At least, if you can figure out what’s going on. Wild Arms 2 is notorious for having the worst translation/localization of any JRPG brought to America. Seriously, I challenge the reader to come up with a more disgusting example. Even early in the history of RPG localization, in the days of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (the first ones), many mistakes were made, but not to the extent of Wild Arms 2. Of course, Wild Arms 2 has a large script with all the more room for them to mess up.
Awkward phrasing? Check. Grammatical errors? Check. Contradictory statements from the same character within the same dialogue scene? Check check check! How about “explanation of a gameplay mechanic whose meaning is lost in translation?” Yes sir! As an example of this last one, I have to point out the leaping boots that Kanon gets late in the game. According to the English script, the boots allow Kanon to jump to other platforms on special tiles, which is true. But the text also says that Kanon can use the boots to clear small heights, presumably without these magic tiles in place, which is definitely false. I don’t like it when a game lies to me.
Finally, there is the comic relief: Toka and Ge, known as Liz and Ard in the English version of the game. The name is about the only thing they get right. “Tokage” means “Lizard,” and these two characters are humanoid lizardmen that, apparently, were inserted to add humor to the game. All humor is lost upon this translation. Everything that is written during these sequences, whether spoken by Liz, Ard, or your own party, makes absolutely no sense. It is truly pathetic. Now, from what I’ve been told, these dialogue sequences have very Japanese-specific humor and were filled with puns. As such, a literal or “static” translation simply cannot work when moving from Japanese to English. As such, this would have been a great time to just rewrite the script, or do a dynamic translation, akin to what Working Designs had been doing for years at that point. No one would have minded, and at least the game would have made some sense during these points.
So, in case you were wondering why the “Story” subscore is at 60%, it’s because of the translation. I would’ve happily paid $10 for this game instead of $6 if they had hired some small consulting group to go through and clean up the script; not a full makeover, just something to make the text easier to understand. But no, we had to get the exact same product we got nine years ago, back when localizers could get away with this shoddy crap.
Wild Arms 2 is a lot of fun. The main plot is fairly short (took me 30 hours), though there is plenty of side-quest stuff to do throughout the game, and even more to do before the final dungeon. It has a memorable “Spaghetti Western” score from Michiko Naruke. The dungeon exploration is a lot of fun and the combat is generally a “short and sweet” experience, given you know what you’re doing. If you can overlook the glaring errors of the translation and you don’t mind the general ugliness of a game trying to pull off 3D graphics on a 32-bit platform, then the game is certainly worth the low price tag of six dollars. There are plenty of better games out in our current generation of hardware, but if you’re just itching to play a PSOne game via the PlayStation Network, the choices are slim, but this is one of your better choices.